Thursday, June 19, 2003

The Benton Harbor riots feel all too familiar. Why do people act so surprised when this keeps happening?

When they threw the bricks and smashed the windows, when they set the blazes that devoured a dozen buildings over the past two harrowing nights, the people of this depressed city on Lake Michigan were not just angry about the 28-year-old motorcyclist killed early Monday in a high-speed police chase.

They were still simmering, many said, over 7-year-old Trent Patterson, who died in a police chase a few years back, and Arthur Partee, who was strangled by police officers only two months ago. They said they were still seething over a teenager's mysterious drowning in the St. Joseph's River in 1991, and the man who was shot in the back by an officer the year before.

The most insidious form of racism is passive. Racism isn't so much burning crosses any more as it is neglect, fear, apathy, White Flight. It's allowing a town like St. Josepth to flourish just across the river.

"It's like two different Americas," said Alex Kotlowitz, whose 1998 book, "The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma," examined the 1991 drowning of a 16-year-old Benton Harbor boy who was either running from the police after breaking into a car or lynched for dating a white girl, depending on where you live.

"It's completely -- economically, spiritually and geographically -- isolated," Mr. Kotlowitz said of Benton Harbor."I''m not surprised at the anger; I felt it. You could tell it had a lot more to it than one individual's death."

When riots happen, we don't see the people anymore. We see monsters who destroy their own homes. We look at these actions and decide that monsters who set fires and break windows deserve their squalor and poverty. We pour more money into law enforcement and declare Welfare dead. And we wash our hands of South Central, and Watts, and Benton Harbor. And when it happens again we wonder why this all feels so familiar.

No comments: